It is an interesting time to put out a play about 1918 Valdosta, Ga 100 years almost to the day. Why this, why now, are something every playwright, actor, and creative struggles with when birthing a project.
I am sure LeKethia Dalcoe, the playwright in question, succumbed to some night of worry as to whether her period piece A Small Oak Tree Runs Red would stand the test of time. Fortunately, the artistic point of view of this powerful play, rumbles through the minutes with a timeless urgency and frightening funhouse mirror reflection of present day.
The story centers around Mary, played by Kyra Riley, who finds herself trapped in a place with her friend Sidney, played by Yusef Miller. They are both the same and yet, somehow different. Memories are fuzzy and literal pieces that need to be gathered along the way to discover their past and hopefully their future.
The setting alternates from this mystery place to Mary’s home where she and her loving husband Hayes, played by R.J. Foster, await the brith of their child. They live a humble, God fearing life, with virtue and integrity. Their dear friend Sidney, is a man troubled by his station and his lack of humanity. His rage is like a cloak that settled on his body long ago, that sooner or later was going to get caught on something.
The story is a mystery, so I will let it remain one. What I can say is that Mary is seeking her loved ones, and Sidney is seeking redemption. Their intersection is vital, terrifying to watch, and also impossible to look away.
The Billie Holiday Theater has been home to many amazing shows, some biographical, many political. This play is one of the company’s boldest choices. The audience, the Black audience, mind you, is forced to deal with hefty questions about religion, God, afterlife, love, womanhood, manhood, spirits.
Just one of those things would be enough to take up a play. But Dalcoe’s words weave universe, time, and terror in an intoxicating web.
Riley is tasked with being the one to tamp down her rage. She must endure and teach humility for the survival of her family. Her character is the heart of the piece, because she is the one who seeks the higher ground in every situation. She is the hopeful one despite being disappointed by people over and over again.
Foster pumps in vitality into a performance of a husband who constantly sees his role usurped by the white man. He is human with emotions too. He wants to be something more than he will ever be allowed to be, because he has to be there for his family first.
It is Miller who carries the weight of the show. It is not just because his actions trickle down to everyone involved. But also his entire body has to perform. With a dancer’s build, he becomes muse to the words at times, having to tell portions of the story with a tap of his foot, or with a twist of his neck, or a bend of his hip.
He gets to get the most laughs as well because he is able to turn a line inside out as quick as he is to bend his arm. For almost the entire show most of his body is moving in different directions. Its a hard thing to see at times, but always entertaining.
Director Harry Lennix, is known by most from such uber blockbusters as The Matrix Reloaded, Ray, Love and Basketball, State of Play and The Five Heartbeats. But it is clear that theater is forever in his heart. He takes a larger than life subject like TK, and whittles it down to humans in a room. Even when that very idea is questioned.
The set is – and music is – tamped up to horror movie status, at times pulling away from the already terrifying subject matter.
The direction and actors keep us in focus on the prize which has alway been our humanity and our souls.
Black bodies have forever been an evolving system of our country. Those bodies made this country. Those bodies fought to be considered bodies not properties. Those bodies hung on trees, were shot in the street, many times for no other reason than they were Black bodies. And if you think the book is closed on that chapter you obviously do not have a social media account. The suffering of the Black body continues long after the date when this play was set.
A Small Oak Tree Runs Red runs through March 4th 2018
Billie Holiday Theatre
13689 Fulton St.
Brooklyn, NY 11216
Cover photo courtesy of The Chicago Tribune